On the Frontline: Syrian Youth in Lebanon – Unforeseen Challenges

On the Frontline: Syrian Youth in Lebanon – Unforeseen Challenges

Ali M. Kassem

Lebanon is a small Mediterranean multicultural and multi-religious nation suffering from both a long-standing fragile socio-economic reality and a brittle political landscape. In 2011, in the Syrian war’s earliest days, Lebanon adopted an open-door policy toward all those seeking refuge. As the war in Syria escalated, the Syrian population in Lebanon steadily rose. Around three years into the conflict, Syrian numbers became unbearable for the Lebanese state; and deterrent laws began to surface.

Within the current refugee landscape of tragedy, injustice and oppression, the predicament of young men, from the early-teens to the mid-20s, dramatically stands out.[1] Usually, it would be thought that this is a group capable of making its own way, and that other intervention priorities exist. Yet, with multiple layers of bigotry and hatred, it appears that such is not the case. More importantly, it appears that this generation, a generation forged with war, faces unimagined challenges. With a colonial history and an imperial present, everything, from identity to belief system, seems imperilled.

Before presenting the main argument of this piece, a note about the Syrian situation in Lebanon ought to be mentioned. With racism and discrimination on the rise, the lack of both material and economic infrastructure and an indifferent state, it is believed that the most affluent Syrians have left Lebanon. Those who remain, mostly those coming from Syria’s rural areas and who could not afford to leave, soon gathered into clustered groupings of refugee camps and collective shelters, lost from mainstream Lebanese society.

They are ‘serviced’ by a host of NGOs, international, national and Islamic, with varying agendas and tactics. Much like a people in a state of pause, the majority of Syrians (although naturally not all) now live in in separation from the Lebanese: grouped subaltern communities who leave their homes, Informal Tented Settlements (ITS), or shelters only for work or emergencies, and return, immediately, ‘always before sundown’.

Yet, this observation seems to have one exception: a group of young male individuals who have witnessed unimaginable horrors in Syria as well as marginalizing violence, of all forms, in Lebanon. Remarkably, they are not keeping to minimal engagement with the Lebanese community (as their parents are and as hegemonic culture is increasingly demanding), are not keeping to just a Syrian social circle and are not retreating from the public sphere. While Lebanon is a country where ‘westernization’ has long taken its toll, especially in terms of culture, and where no identity exists, Syria had always been different: a much clearer national identity and a much stronger resistance to the different forms of western hegemony. Yet, it appears that Lebanon’s ailments have overwhelmed Syria’s young. Indeed, and as I spent time in the field researching the Syrian refugee communities of Lebanon’s major cities and living in Beirut’s southern suburb, I came to realize a sarcastic and ugly form of assimilation, unmeant unplanned and dangerous, which had swallowed much of the Syrian youth’s norms and customs while pushing them toward changes in both lifestyle and identity. In what follows, I present a few illustrations of this mute tragedy.

‘Saiid’ is a young Syrian man who came to Lebanon when his village was occupied by ISIS fighters in the early days of the conflict. Entering legally, he abided by all rules and regulations until the state’s policies made it impossible for him to continue doing so. He soon got a job at a small café, where he slept at night and worked during the day. One night, we began a conversation in which he told me about his years in Lebanon. A young man who had to leave his family, he spoke of dire conditions. Yet, it was not his dismal reality which amazed me most, especially as he continuously affirmed his fortune for having even found employment. Rather, as he retold stories of his daily activities, I was surprised to hear things one would not expect from a boy whose village and family are in a state of war, nor from a young man in Saiid‘s shoes of poverty and misfortune. He spoke of urban fun, of specifically Lebanese habits, and of a consumerism that resonated badly with both his socio-cultural background as well as his economic status. A bodybuilder, he seemed to be indifferent to what was happening around him; unconcerned with the war in Syria. Yet, my greatest surprise came when I inquired into his intentions of a return to Syria and to his family. He explained that he had no such intention and that Syria was a ruined nation, not only in terms of buildings and stones, but in terms of people and identity.

Startled, I began thinking of what it means for Lebanon, and for Syria; to have a generation of Syrians without a sense of belonging to their nation. A while later, the conversations I had with Saiid resonated in a conversation I had with another young Syrian man. Interested, I inquired further. He was not diplomatic in his answers. ‘Nizar’ is only Syrian in terms of his identity card, something he hopes he can change one day. Certainly, Nizar does not see himself in Syria, nor does he see himself in the company of Syrians. A self-hatred, perhaps, he speaks of his circle of Lebanese friends and attempts to conceal all other affiliations. Startlingly, the discourse was one of complete disenchantment and cynicism, depicting Syria as a land of war and horror and finding solace in consumption and urban leisure.

I decided to share these thoughts with my brother, whom I knew had a number of Syrian friends: he did not seem as flabbergasted as I was. To the contrary, he told me that I should not be surprised, as the same description applies to many Syrians he knew. ‘Sami’ is one of my brother’s friends whom I know relatively well, and whom I never knew was Syrian. With a Lebanese accent, and dreams of traveling to Europe in pursuit of economic and material comfort, Sami could easily pass for an average consumer Lebanese. Following-up, I was saddened to find the above-mentioned discourse echoing throughout: a pursuit of materialistic pleasure and indifference to any and all political concerns.

Having spent some of the most challenging years of their lives as refugees, the majority of these young men came to Lebanon before their adolescence and are now, seven years into the conflict, young adults. As organizations have all shifted into a development gear, and as they drown in projects seeking to support the Lebanese, as a host community, or to provide water supplies to Syrians scattered across the Bekaa valley, young Syrians living in the heart of Lebanon’s urban centres ache in a silence no one seems to hear. Based on illusions and suffering, their sense of self, of belonging, has been scarred: the war and its terrors have led to a complete disenchantment with their nation, a complete indifference with the world, manifesting in frantic attempts at escape.

While a multitude of variables, from religious belief to economic class, must be taken into consideration, and while the ideas proposed here are far from being definitive statements or strong generalizable ones, they pose a number of vital questions. Could it be that a vulnerable category unaddressed is seeking refuge in all the wrong places: from excessive consumerism and self-hatred to an interiorization of the racism, eurocentrism and bigotry floating in our world? What does this mean for the Syrian’s sense of self? of identity? What is our duty towards this? While no conclusive proclamations can be made on the behalf of the Syrian youth residing in Lebanon, an alarm bell ought to be rung, especially as the Syrian war draws to a close. As one realizes that no effort is being made to treat this wound, one also (sadly) recognises how imperialism, eurocentrism, political interests and pragmatism intersect to dictate the nursing of some (lesser) vulnerabilities, flouting (imperative) others.

[1] From March through September of 2017, I undertook fieldwork across three major cities in Lebanon: the capital Beirut, Sidon in the South and Zahle in the Bekaa. This was part of two collaborative research projects investigating Syrian refugees in Lebanon: one with the American University of Beirut entitled Harb Mona, Syrian businesses in Beirut, a collaborative research project funded by the Ford Foundation (with Mona Fawaz and Ahmad Gharbieh as co-PIs), and one with the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, entitled: The Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies (LCPS), Harb Mona, Fawaz Mona, Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR), Fafo. Lebanese Municipalities and Syrian Refugees: Building Capacity and Promoting Agency Collaborative research project funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), 2017-19. While this essay is informed by the multiple discussions I had with the researchers of the AUB and the IDRC project, it does not reflect the opinions of any of the PIs and the research team, and I remain solely responsible for its contents and the interpretation I make of my own observations, which are distinct from the data collected for the AUB and IDRC projects.


Ali Kassem is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Sussex and the recipient of the LPS PhD scholarship. He is also a research fellow at the Ludwig-Maximillian University in Munich. He is mainly interested in postcolonial and decolonial theory, the sociology of Islam and the sociology of knowledge. He holds an MA from the American University of Beirut with a thesis titled ‘The Social Sciences in the training of Shia scholars in Lebanon’.

Image: Author’s own. House in Beirut where four Syrian families live.